Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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The Philadelphia 76ers have now made it to the second round of the playoffs for two years in a row. By most conventional standards, that makes them a boring old Good Team. They are no longer a rebuilding team, they are no longer a young team, they are no longer a growing team, they are simply a good team that has been good and is expected to be good in the future. And as a good team, that means the really dramatic parts of their season should come in April, May, and the early parts of June.
This year, that’s exactly what happened. In the first round, the Sixers got booed in their first home game in the playoffs and made a (temporary) enemy out of their second-best player. Then they won an away game without their first-best player, had a fan-favorite hit a game-winning three in a series swing game, and advanced to the second round on a historic home blowout. Once there as underdogs, they swapped momentum swings and road advantages with the series favorite multiple times, saw their franchise player battle through multiple maladies, still fought down to the wire in a Game 7 on the road, and then were eliminated by a shot that fuckin’ scientists had to be called in to explain. Real TNT Knows Drama shit.
But you know what? That’s OK. The playoffs are when sports are supposed to be dramatic. That’s when things are supposed to be high-stakes, with franchise fortunes rising and falling on the weird-ass bounce of a basketball. If we have to suffer tragedy, Spring is the time to do it. It would just be nice if that meant that -- for once -- we could make up for it by having a pretty chill summer.
Of course, the Sixers have been about as good at having an anxiety-free summer as post-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson. Let’s briefly (?) recap Sixers summers since 2015:
2015: Jahlil Okafor taken with third pick. Pickswap trade with Sacramento nets us Nik Stauskas and two first-rounders. Joel Embiid announced Embiid second surgery announced, will miss entirety of 2015-’16 season.
2016: Sixers win Lottery for first time in 20 years, select Ben Simmons with first pick. Dario finally comes over. Embiid makes preseason debut. Simmons breaks his ankle in practice, ultimately misses entirety of 2016-’17 season.
2017: Sixers move up to No. 3 via Sacramento pickswap, trade pick and future Kings first to Boston for Markelle Fultz. Simmons and Embiid recover from their 2016-’17 injuries, are joined by free agent signee J.J. Redick. After decent Summer League showing, Fultz gets hurt and comes back with a totally different-looking shooting form that no one can properly explain, and only 19 games his rookie season as everyone tries to figure out what the fuck happened.
2018 :GM Bryan Colangelo is ousted in the midst of a bizarre Twitter scandal, as our hodgepdoge front office misses out on the year’s much-hyped free agent class, including rumored target LeBron James. With coach Brett Brown overseeing the front office, the team takes local favorite Mikal Bridges with the 10th pick in the draft, then trades him mid-introduction to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith and a future first. Former Process Sixer Elton Brand is announced as the Sixers’ surprise new GM. Nemanja Bjelica signs with Philly and then defects to Sacramento. Fultz returns and (maybe?) shoots now. J.J. Redick discovers a caged person in the back of his transport. Zhaire Smith breaks his foot, and then has an allergic reaction and nearly dies.
So yeah. Not a lot of chill in our summers of late. This is probably when, when Jimmy Butler posts an Instagram thanking his teammates and the city for just kinda being great -- really, that’s all it was! -- we respond like he’s been photographed at a yee-haw joint with Mark Cuban, pen in one hand, dotted-lined contract in the other. We’re just conditioned to expect the worst from every summer -- or at the very least, to expect the most.
All that said, for reasons that are perhaps unearned or are at the very least blithely naive, I feel optimistic about this offseason’s chances to just kinda be an offseason. We lost out on our 1% chance of winning the lottery, which means we only have the 24th pick in the draft -- and we don’t have the expendable mega-assets to turn it into all that much more than that. Brett has been re-confirmed as our coach, and Elton seems basically secure in his role as GM. Ben and Joel seem (hopefully, mostly) healthy, and enjoying a nice post-playoffs respite before getting back in the lab. The long-rumored mega-trades were already made during the regular season. Markelle Fultz is 500 miles away. What could possibly go weird?
Well, the answer of course is still “a lot.” Free agency looms as a major potential complication, as 5/7 of our playable rotation guys during the Toronto series are eligible to move elsewhere. Sixers Twitter seems to have mostly united under the clarion call of Run It Back, and there seems to be pretty good reason to hope that this will be the team’s and players’ approach to this summer as well. But we can’t know for sure what’s in anybody’s heads -- if Butler and Tobias Harris will prioritize role over money, or if Josh Harris & Co. will cheap out on the tax bill and decide to low-ball them in the first place. Besides, in a Sixersverse where anything from a Ringer tweet to a peanut can throw the entire team into upheaval, it’d be foolish to think you’ve ever accounted for all possible threats to normalcy.
Still, I’m heartened by the fact that a road to routine exists for these Sixers. The last few summers, we were guaranteed from the very end of the previous season to go into the following season with questions -- about Fultz’s fit, about Simmons’ and Embiid’s health, about the front office’s stability. This season, the Sixers team we’re leaving is just a good, smart, coherent basketball team that seems to generally know who they are and what they want to do. There’s questions for sure: About Simmons’ offensive growth, about Zhaire and Jonah Bolden’s overall development, about touches and minutes and a goddamn backup center. But the big questions seem to mostly have been answered for once. This team is already good enough, and should only be getting better.
And really, this really might be the best Run It Back argument of all: Not only is there value in franchise consistency, but maybe there’s just value in franchise normalcy. Get the guys in place, keep them in place, and then prevent any Twilight Zone shit happening to them or around them -- who’s to say what the psychic benefits of a summer without catastrophe could be for this squad? Let’s just hope that old instincts don’t kick in for Brett and Elton and we end up making a panic move in response to drama that isn’t even there. We all need to learn a tough lesson in staying cool this summer.